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Iranian Artist’s Video Installation at Biennale Narrates Gender Inequalities in Middle East

In Kochi
February 02, 2019


If near-invisibility of women has been a feature of Middle Eastern culture, then Iranian Shirin Neshat’s video installation makes a stark comment on the inequality of gender roles in her society. All of it, aided by the medium of ancient Persian music and poetry.

At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the artist has a two-channel film titled ‘Turbulent’ on display in the main venue of the festival on till March 29. The black-and-white visuals on a dual screen essay two Iranian singers — one is male, the other female. It’s a work that marks 60-year-old Shirin’s departure from still photography towards video installation. “This is my first attempt to focus on the issue of gender in relation to the social structure of Islamic Iran,” points out the New York- based artist.

The nine-minute video at Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi features two musical performances. One screen of the video begins by showing a male singer performing with his back turned to an all-men audience. The other has the female performer facing empty seats.

“The work is an inquiry into the absence of Iranian women from musical practice. Women have often been banned from taking part in such activity, while men are free to enjoy public performances and recordings,” shares Shirin, who became internationally recognised two decades ago when her 1998 film ‘Turbulent’ won the international prize at the Venice Biennale.

At the ongoing 108-day biennale here, Shirin’s work is designed as a two-channel projection for two facing screens. The viewer, standing in between them, witnesses a virtual musical duel between male and female singers, the artist says. The man performs before an appreciative audience, rendering traditional and passionate love song with lyrics by the great Iranian mystic Rumi. (The vocal, by Shahram Nazeri, has been lip-synched by Shoja Azari.) On the other hand, the woman (played by Sussan Deyhim) performs a more unusual vocalisation to an empty auditorium, “building to an emotional intensity that then transfixes the male singer and his audience”, notes Shirin.

The screens are placed in such a way that it is impossible to watch them simultaneously so the viewer has to choose where to direct attention upon entering the display space.

Shirin, who graduated from UC Berkeley, states that the female performer’s music and her presence in this room represent something rebellious. This is indicative of how she feels the state of women in Iran. “Ultimately, the female singer subverts every rule of traditional music and pioneers a style of her own, while the male singer remains within the perimeter of convention,” she adds.

For the past two decades, Shirin has explored complex issues that exist at the intersection of gender and politics, particularly as reflected in the changing status of women in Iran. The work is her response to how women singers in Iran are not allowed to perform alone in public, she explains. “The female singers’ throaty notes are powerful. What’s more, they emanate exhaustion, suggesting how both might be suffocating from society’s roles — the man within the codes of strict tradition, and the woman who must perform for an empty theatre.”